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Are we willing to demand that public education be held accountable for its performance?

What is public education for? What is the best we can expect of it? What is the least we will accept from it?

The basic questions about public education are too seldom raised in Dallas. Everybody’s attention is attracted to the minor controversies surrounding the Dallas public schools, but nobody’s attention seems to stay focused on the questions that matter: What are we doing here, and why? On those rare occasions when the issue is addressed, it is with a kind of genial boost-erism. The business leadership of this city, with the compliance of the editorial pages of both major dailies, acts as if everything will turn out right if we don’t admit that anything is wrong.

On January 3, when the Legislature convenes in Austin, that will change. State Rep. Lee Jackson of Dallas will introduce a bill to require minimum competence testing of every public school student in Texas. Before that bill becomes law – the Legislature appears to favor it – we had better confront the essential questions about what we want from public education. And we’d better come up with some answers.

If the present draft of the bill is passed, the first minimum competence tests will be given in the 1980-81 school year. Beginning with the 1982-83 school year, no student will be promoted from the fifth or eighth grade without passing the test for that grade level in reading, writing, and mathematics. Beginning that year, no student in Texas will be awarded a high school diploma without demonstrating ability in those same subjects “appropriate for the 12th grade.” For those students who can’t meet the standards, school districts will be required to establish remedial or tutorial services; the bill provides for state funding of those programs on a district-by-district basis.

While there’s not space enough here to discuss the particulars of Jackson’s bill, I can say that it seems carefully conceived. He does not suggest that the Legislature set the minimum standards for performance, but leaves those matters in the hands of the State Board of Education, guided by a committee of experts appointed from the various school districts. But Jackson makes it clear that neither he nor, he hopes, the Legislature will settle for a mediocre level of expectation.

If the Legislature adopts Jackson’s plan, Texas will join a nationwide movement. In January 1977, only seven states had legislation relating to competence testing of school children. By last summer, the number had risen to 33. These programs have not been established without some pain. When statewide tests were given in Florida in 1977, in accordance with a law passed the year before, 36 percent of the state’s high school juniors failed the mathematics portion (only eight percent failed the “communications” portion). There are two ways to respond to results like that. Some parents claimed the test was too hard. Most of Florida’s citizens, however, expressed the view that, now that the state’s schools knew what the problem was, they ought to do something about it. Florida’s state government has responded by funding remedial programs.

The minimum competence movement is an attempt to repair the damage done by the educational fads of the Sixties. In Dallas we have first-hand knowledge of the damage those fads have caused. As an educator wrote in a recent issue of Phi Delta Kappan, a national educational magazine, “We had schools without walls, subjects without substance, electives without requirements, and diplomas without meaning. Test scores went down and everything else went up: truancy, vandalism, discipline problems – and costs.”

Should public education be an agent of social change? An expensive babysitting service for inner-city children? Or do we expect public education to educate? If we are willing to demand that public education be held accountable for its performance, do we need a state law imposing requirements? The Legislature’s answer will almost certainly be yes. All public schools depend in large part on state funds; the Legislature has a responsibility to make certain that tax dollars are spent effectively. Furthermore, the Legislature has an obligation to provide equal opportunity; a statewide standard will help further that end.

The educational establishment can be counted on to oppose the bill. (The National Education Association roundly condemned the Florida plan at its convention in Dallas last May.) It will argue that such matters are best handled locally. They will express concern that the tests will result in witchhunts against teachers whose students fail. They will repeat the oft-repeated hypothesis that holding students back a grade or refusing them a diploma would undermine their psychological health and produce a syndrome of failure.

That last argument is the strangest, if only because it has so often been proved to be wrong. The evidence from districts which have established minimum competence testing shows greater gains in basic skills by more students than ever before. It has been found that students who can’t read can be taught to read – but only if the school, the parent, and the teacher know that the student can’t read. Instead of creating a syndrome of failure, the competence tests should be seen as providing some hope for success. In Greenville County, Virginia, where tests have been used since 1973, the dropout rate has declined by 40 percent. Students who were once merely passed from one grade to the next, only to be hopelessly confused and intimidated by instruction that was above their heads, are now given the opportunity to learn at their own level and to master the material before being asked to perform at a higher level.

The argument for local control is nothing more than a smoke screen. Local control in this case doesn’t mean local citizen control: It means keeping matters in the hands of our school districts’ administrators. Their opposition to statewide standards is to be expected: Bureaucrats often oppose standards against which their own performance can be measured. But I don’t think their opposition will have much effect. A recent Gallup poll showed 68 percent of the American public to be in favor of nationwide minimum competence standards for public schools. That makes it clear that the argument is not between Dallas and Austin, but between Austin and Washington. Those who support local control should endorse statewide standards if only to pre-empt the imposition of federal standards.

Minimum standards for public schoolsmake sense. Jackson’s proposed bill is areasonable effort to impose those standards. If the Legislature has its prioritiesright, this bill will be seen as the most important piece of legislation to be considered in the upcoming session. I endorse it,and I hope that the Legislature will enactit into law.

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